BARCELONA — It's a large, bright open space, in which 80 people work, sitting behind brand new desks. The grey of the carpet is still pristine, the walls too white, impersonal. Except for a large sticker, whose shape, known throughout the world, provides an indication of what's going on precisely in this room: it's a large blue thumb, Facebook's iconic "Like".
In this gleaming tower in Barcelona, there are 800 people spread over six open spaces on several floors who work for the social network. Or, more precisely, for the Competence Call Center (CCC), a Facebook subcontractor to whom the company delegates, as it does to others, the moderation of content published by users.
Their mission is to clean up the platform of publications forbidden under Facebook rules, including pornography, hate content and terrorist propaganda. Through the software they use, moderators receive content reported by users as well as by an artificial intelligence system. For each piece of content, they must decide whether to delete the post or leave it online. If they are in doubt, they refer the case to a manager. Their bible? Facebook's "community standards," the social network's very specific rules explaining, for example, that you can show buttocks (as long as it's a wide-angle shot), but not a nipple, except in the case of a work of art or a breast cancer campaign.
We don't get to see this piece of software. Nor do we see these moderators working. When we arrive in the open space, a cheerful noise fills the room. It's that of the employees chatting, still at their stations, but with their hands away from their keyboards. On their 80 screens, the same still image of the colorful community standards' home page.
It all goes according to script: in the presence of a journalist, everything must stop. For Facebook, it's absolutely out of the question that we might even see a single screen on. "It's to respect user privacy, since we see the names of the people who published the content," says Facebook, which organized the visit.
During this brief visit — we spend only a few minutes in the open space — some four people accompany us. And pictures are not allowed either. Instead, Facebook provides us with its own images. We stay close to the walls, a few meters away from the moderators, to whom we don't get to speak at this moment. That will happen later, for a brief 15-minute window during which we meet five hand-picked employees, under the supervision of their boss and a Facebook representative.
We can't afford to be picky. For three years now we've been asking the world's largest social network (with more than two billion active users) to give us access to one of its moderation centers, a right that the company has almost never granted to any journalist. In November 2018, the company finally agreed to open its doors, albeit very slightly, offering 12 European journalists access to a center in Barcelona.
It seems to be a huge step forward for Facebook. Until recently, the greatest secrecy reigned around its moderation practices, be it the rules themselves, which are confusing and are only roughly summarized on the site, or the work of its moderation teams, of which we knew nothing. For the US company, this is an extremely sensitive issue, which has led to scandals and accusations of censorship and laxity.
The 2015 terror attacks around Europe marked a turning point. The use of Facebook by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) to conduct its propaganda and recruit highlighted major shortcomings. Governments then began to raise their voices, to threaten, and even, in the case of Germany, to legislate. As of January 2018, platforms in Germany face a 50-million-euro fine if illegal content remains online for more than 24 hours.
Faced with an emergency, Facebook rolled up its sleeves. Three years later, its efforts finally paid off. Terrorist propaganda has become rare on the social network, although other serious problems have emerged, such as disinformation. For example, the UN has accused Facebook of allowing hate speech to proliferate in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority, inciting violence and hatred.
We're trying, very sincerely, to protect people.
In response to the complaints, the company decided to provide more information about its moderation process. Last year, 13 years after its creation, Facebook finally revealed one figure: its moderation teams were composed of 4,500 people worldwide. Today, the scale has changed. Facebook claims 30,000 people are working in this sector, half of them as foot soldiers of moderation, responsible for examining 2 million pieces of content per day.
"There's secrecy, but we're really starting to open up, because we're trying, very sincerely, to protect people," says David Geraghty, who leads Facebook's moderation teams. At the CCC in Barcelona, he mentions as examples of this new openness the online publication of the company's very detailed internal moderation rules, as well as a new "transparency report" on the removed content, available since May.
Why did it take so long? "We're more comfortable with our numbers, which are more accurate today," says Geraghty by way of an explanation. But transparency has its limits. How many such centers exist? They won't tell us. Where are they located? Again, nothing. And when you ask Ulf Herbrechter, one of CCC's managers, how many French people work at the Barcelona center, he hesitates to answer, then asks David Geraghty for the right to respond, which he doesn't get.
"We keep certain things secret, such as the location of centers, for security reasons. The YouTube shooting in California in April targeted content managers. That's also why we don't give their names."
The center we are visiting opened its doors in May, in one of Barcelona's business districts. Here, employees from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands and Scandinavia examine the content from their respective countries. "For the French market, we only recruit French people, not just French speakers," Herbrechter points out. "It is crucial that they know French culture, that they understand the political context, for example."
CCC, a company initially dedicated to call centers, now has 22 offices in Europe, two of which are entirely dedicated to moderating Facebook content. The moderators are paid "about 25,000 euros per year", says Herbrechter. At least, that's the figure for the French employees. "Wages vary according to nationality," he adds, saying this was a matter of supply and demand.
What's a moderator's typical day like? Before entering the open space, he must leave his coat, bag and smartphone in a cloakroom, again "to respect user privacy," according to Facebook, and to prevent documents from leaving the center. Once he sits at his workstation, the great flood of content begins. How many pieces of content do they moderate per day? "It depends," says Herbrechter. Do they have quantified objectives? "There is a rumor that they only have a few seconds to make a decision. That's not what is happening here. A decision on a photo can be immediate, but if you have to read a long post, it takes time."
So, does this means Facebook's contract with CCC doesn't contain any objectives regarding the volume of content processed? "Our contract is quality, not numbers," says Geraghty for Facebook. "Our priority is to make the right decision."
Photo of a break room on Facebook's Barcelona office, provided to Le Monde by Facebook
The moderators sing from the same hymn sheet. Gathered in the presence of their boss in a "break room" with colorful furniture and overflowing fruit baskets, all five of them say they're proud of their work. "We're helpful because we protect people. We clean up," one of them says. We don't get to know their names. All signed a confidentiality agreement when they were hired, prohibiting them from speaking to journalists.
How do they deal with the daily confrontation with this sometimes difficult content? "We're warned from the beginning. In general, we have the ability to distance ourselves so that it doesn't affect us," says one of them. "There is often a misconception about what we do," adds a colleague. "You might think you see rape videos all day long, but you don't," she says. Hate content, for example, is more frequent in the French market. "But we know that some countries see more violent things," warns another. For example, Arabic-speaking moderators were much more often confronted with decapitation videos.
But this work is not as stressful as you might think.
Five psychologists work full-time at the center to support employees. All over the building, stickers encourage moderators to go and see them if they feel "stressed, upset". "People can come after seeing content that has shocked them," explains Natalia, one of the psychologists at the center. "When this happens, it's often because it reminds them of something they've experienced. But this work is not as stressful as you might think; they're not that exposed to things that are very painful to see."
Not everyone agrees, however. In September, a former Facebook moderator in California filed a complaint against the company, claiming to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being exposed to "highly toxic content," according to her lawyers.
What conclusion can be drawn from such a visit? Are these modern offices in Barcelona representative of all of Facebook's moderation centers, of which we know nothing and are often run by other subcontractors? Geraghty swears the answer is "Yes'. "We have one practically like this one in the Philippines. If you go there, you will see that they don't work in dark basements, as it has been described."
This is a reference to the documentary The Cleaners, which shows the work of Filipino moderators working for the major social network platforms and is unflattering to digital giants. The rare testimonies that some media, including Le Monde, were able to obtain from former moderators, reflect a more difficult reality than the one presented in Barcelona — quantified objectives, time counted in seconds, psychological damage for those confronted with the harshest content. But these experiences often date back a few years. Today, the message Facebook hopes to send out is clear: Times have changed.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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